" We hope these reforms are undertaken with deliberate speed. "
We all know the Duterte administration’s singular focus against drugs and corruption. Noting the ill effects of these evil influences in society, President Duterte went hammer and tongs against the drug syndicates and their networks which merited all kinds of pushback and continuing vilification from the usual suspects here and abroad. In the same vein, he went aggressively against the grafters, in and out of government, shaming the wrongdoers and charging them in courts.
These twin campaigns coupled with his continuing efforts to make the economy more productive, competitive and equitable have contributed immensely to his newest appellation as a transformative chief executive.
This is well taken. Take the case of his efforts to transform our public utilities into world-class, accessible and affordable instruments for nation building and poverty alleviation. He has ordered the review of the development and regulatory frameworks for the water and power sectors with a view to ensuring that those engaged in providing services in these areas are primed to provide the best services at reasonable rates. Thus, the concessions of the two water service providers in the Metro Manila bubble have been reviewed and reformed. Those in the power sector are currently being scrutinized and reformed given continuing public outcry over high electricity costs and rotating brownouts.
But is in the reform of the telecoms sector where the administration has seemingly gotten much traction. To fasttrack the upgrade of what analysts call the telecoms highway, the government has earmarked billions of pesos to jumpstart the construction of a national broadband network to serve as the backbone of the industry’s leap into the world of first-class providers. In addition, after years of trying, the government has finally gotten a third telco in place to counter balance the duopolistic tendencies of the two telecoms giants, PLDT/Smart and Globe. With the start of Dito Telecoms operations in Visayas and Mindanao, we should be able to see an uptick in traffic in these areas pretty soon.
Then, last year in July after the matter of interminable delays in the permitting process for the construction of telco facilities was brought to his attention, PRRD immediately ordered the simplification of procedures and the fast tracking of the regulatory approvals for the roll out of needed telco infrastructure especially on the LGU and mid-bureaucracy levels.
The response has been swift and sweet. In 2019, a measly total of 1,636 permits were issued for the three providers, PLDT/Smart, Globe and Dito. By 2020, this rocketed five times as a total of 6,451 permits were issued. This year, as of the first quarter, a total of 2,789 permits have already been issued to telcos.
In just one sweep, President Duterte’s order has resulted in the erection of 4,337 towers in 2020 which is thrice that of 2019 which stood at 1746. The 2020 total will definitely be overtaken by the end of 2021 given that as of April this year, 1,672 towers have been erected. Now, the telcos can no longer use permitting as an excuse for any glitch in their services.
Egged by the President to provide world-class services, the telcos have reportedly been investing heavily in newer facilities and technologies. With the problem of towers out of the way, the providers are now ramping up the construction of their fiber optic networks. As of today, the telcos combined have only laid out a total of 846,323 cable kilometers divided as follows: Smart controls more than 50 percent with 497,700 cable kilometres; followed by stand-alone fiber optic company Converge with 260,030 cable-kilometers. Globe with 72,573 cable-kilometers and DITO with 16,020 cable-kilometers. The increase in cable kilometres laid out has been close to extraordinary from a total of only 384,341 in 2019 to 726,705 cable-kilometers in 2020 — or a 89-percent increase in just 12 months. As of April 2021, a 16.5-percent increase was obtained which is likely to be even higher by the year end after the President reportedly repeated his earlier request for the telcos to let him greet our OFWs in the Holy Land a Merry Christmas this year.
These developments have prompted Ookla, the global leader in mobile and broadband network monitoring, to say that the Philippines has stepped up in broadband speed now ranked at 65th out of 180 countries even as it still lags behind at number 77 out of 137 countries in mobile. These new rankings can only be described as close to outstanding given that only a year ago, we were ranked 103rd in fixed broadband and 110th in mobile globally.
Moreover, of the 50 Asian countries monitored by Ookla, we were above the median at 17th place for fixed broadband and just three steps below the average at 23rd place for mobile. In the Asia-Pacific area, out of 46 countries,the Philippines ranked 14th for fixed broadband and 12th for mobile. In the case of the 10 member nation ASEAN grouping, we are right in the middle of the pack, raking 5th in both fixed broadband and mobile.
Finally, the telcos will now benefit from the latest issuance of the DPWH allowing them to occupy a portion of the government’s right-of-way (ROW) for the construction of their facilities as needed. This new directive plus the possibility of Transco, the government agency in charge of the “power transmission highway” and its private partner NGCP, can come around to finalize their study on the use of the power transmission cable network by the telcos themselves. If ever this initiative comes to pass in time, that will surely be another feather in the cap of President Duterte who has bowed time and again to dismantle monopolistic tendencies and bureaucratic practices to provide the best services to our people as we push even harder to alleviate the poverty situation in the country made even worse by the pandemic.
All we can hope and pray for is for these reforms to be undertaken with deliberate speed.